Amazon rainforest
Amazon rainforest
Photo: Pexels

In May, facing urgent international demands for action after a string of massive wildfires in the Amazon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro put the army in charge of protecting the rainforest.

Instead, The Associated Press has found, the operation dubbed as "Green Brazil 2" has had the opposite effect. Under military command, Brazil's once-effective but recently declining investigation and prosecution of rainforest destruction by ranchers, farmers and miners has come to a virtual halt, even as this year's burning season picks up.

The Brazilian army appears to be focusing on dozens of small road-and-bridge-building projects that allow exports to flow faster to ports and ease access to protected areas, opening the rainforest to further exploitation.

In the meantime, there have been no major raids against illegal activity since Bolsonaro required military approval for them in May, according to public officials, reporting from the area and interviews with nine current and former members of Brazil's environmental enforcement agency.

The AP also found that:

The number of fines issued for environmental crimes has been cut by almost half since four years ago, especially under Bolsonaro.

Two high-ranking officials from IBAMA, the environmental agency, say they have stopped using satellite maps to locate deforestation sites and fine their owners __ a once-widely used technique. IBAMA officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

IBAMA is no longer penalizing the heads of big networks of illegal logging, mining and farming, according to two other officials. Meat packers who sell beef from deforested areas now operate freely, according to three IBAMA officials.

The order putting the military in charge of fighting deforestation was initially due to end in June, but it was recently extended by Bolsonaro until November despite widespread criticism that it is making the problem worse.

At stake is the fate of the forest itself, and hopes of limiting global warming. Experts say blazes and deforestation are pushing the world's largest rainforest toward a tipping point, after which it will cease to generate enough rainfall to sustain itself.

About two-thirds of the forest would then begin an irreversible, decades-long decline into tropical savanna.

The Amazon has lost about 17 per cent of its original area and, at the current pace, is expected to reach a tipping point in the next 15 to 30 years. As it decomposes, it will release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"From the occupation of the land to mining and the fires, it is all connected," said Suely Vaz, who headed IBAMA between 2016 and 2019 and is now a specialist of the Climate Observatory, comprised of 50 non-governmental groups.

"IBAMA should fight the whole network of deforestation. But it just doesn't now." Bolsonaro's office and IBAMA did not respond to requests for comment, but Bolsonaro declared in May that "our effort is great, enormous in fighting fires and deforestation." He also called reports of the forest on fire "a lie." Brazil's Defense Ministry defended its record, saying its deployment was ''an operation of multiple agencies" involving 2,090 people a day, along with 89 vehicles and 19 ships.

"Those figures are rising by the day, as resources become available and operations are gradually intensified," the ministry said.

It said the operation had led to the destruction of 253 machines involved in illegal logging as of Aug. 24 but did not specify what type of machines or say anything about other illegal activities like mining.

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